Sunday, May 25, 2008

Top 10 Things I Will Miss About Israel

In no particular order:

10. The Shabbat Smell of Fridays: There is something special about Fridays in Israel. Everyone is anxiously awaiting Shabbat and everyone is a little bit nicer. These were the days that I could relax, detach myself from the rest of the hectic school week, and breathe in the fresh air.

9. Cup o' Joe and the Israeli Breakfast: My home away from home at least once a week, especially on Fridays for lunch. Wheat bread, Egg White Omelette, with salad, tuna, and cheeses... yumm.

8. The Makolet: These small convenient stores are found on practically every corner of Jerusalem. If you didn't want to go major grocery shopping, or just wanted a quick snack, this was the place to go.

7. Walking: Next school year will be the first time in 5 years where I will have to drive to school (hopefully I will live somewhere close and perhaps still be able to walk!)

6. Hebrew: There are so many phrases that I will miss, but likely will continue to use. For example - the word "balagan" implies craziness, problems, or difficulties that occur in situations.

5. The View of the Old City: I took it for granted, but the Old City was only a 15 minute walk from my house. It was literally my backyard!

4. My classmates: 53 to 9. It was nice to not have to truly say goodbye to everyone since I will see them come fall, but many others will be going to the LA or NY campuses. These are friends who have taught me a lot and I will miss them.

3. Azza Street: Barber, Fruit Stand, Restaurants

2. Challah: I'd better find some good Challah in Cincy.

1. Culture: It's hard to define, hard to describe - but it's one of the most fascinating.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

We Remember Them

The days following Pesach mark a demonstration of civil religion within Israel, and perhaps could be thought of, according to Rabbi Ben Hollander, who has recently passed away, as the second Yamim Noraim (Days of Awe) in the Jewish tradition.

This past Thursday marked Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Rememberance Day. One of the many things I regret not doing at College of Charleston is not participating in the Holocaust walk, memorializing the six million that perished. Therefore, Thursday marked my first true observance of this somber day.

We had a beautiful tefillah led by some of our classmates - and to distinguish it from others - no nusach (melodies to prayer) were used. Some of the prayers were modified to reflect upon the day, and there was no Hakafah - precessional of the Torah. I found it quite difficult, even with these changes, to praise God throughout the service. How can our conception of an all knowing, all powerful and all good God allow such an event like the Holocaust happen? I am one to share Elie Wiesel's response to the Holocaust: "God behaved badly." Wiesel nevered did or has turned his back on God -- he just holds God to same standards God holds us. The covenant is a dynamic contract that holds both the Jewish people and God accountable for their actions. Once of things I have learned this year is that this relationship is not perfect - and in fact it continues to evolve. Our struggle for Jewish identity is centered on our relationship to the tradition itself, including our relationship with God. In the book of Job, we find that all the classical explanations for the suffering of Job is refuted by God except that of protest. For Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, this protest is called Spiritual Audacity - our ability to question our faith and reconcile with its problems and inconsistencies in our own, individual way.

At 10:00 am a three minute siren was heard throughout all of Israel. In the minutes leading up to it, no one would notice that silence was about to emerge within the state. As the siren blew loudly, cars immediately stopped - and were turned off. Drivers stood outside their cars and looked up into the sky, paying homage to all those that passed away. Even all the construction workers paused for this minutes. For three minutes Israel stood still - but once these minutes ended, people got back in their cars, the construction resumed, and life continued on.

Life goes on - an important concept that Israelis understand. Despite turmoil, despite all the drama that occurs within our lives, life does not stop. Israelis have accepted this concept and constantly displays it. Even when many died in the Mercaz HaRav shootings a month ago, and everyone mourned for their loss, people lived their day as if nothing happened. However, it isn't as if nothing happened - it is as if something happened. Perhaps the greatest response to suffering, then, is despite the challenges that come our way, we must prevail and continue with our lives.

We Remember Them. We Honor Them. We continue to try and grapple this horrific event. And how do we honor them?

We live.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008


For about six times this year I have met with some fellow Rabbinical Students, as well as a rabbi and teacher from HUC, to reflect upon our Year in Israel, explore our relationship to Judaism, and only begin to discuss challenges that we will all have as Jewish Professionals.

Tomorrow marks my last Reflection Group, and I have been asked to answer the following, and would like to share my answers:

During the year you've been in Israel, what is the greatest insight –realization/clarity-- that you have gained in the following areas:

your connection to the Jewish People:

Jewish Peoplehood is driven by the struggle to balance both individuality and community, and it takes shape in a variety of different aspects of Jewish tradition - including prayer and stories in the Bible that stress a one-on-one relationship with God and that of the community.

your connection to Israel:

I had no connection to Israel prior to this year, and I have now realized that perhaps the best relationship with Israel is conflicted - to embrace the beauty of Israel as a fulfillment of a goal of a historical people, while being challenged to aspect the realities of difficult life within a torn society.


We have had little practical, professional development this year, yet I have always said that I have learned much more outside the classroom than within. I've learned valuable skills simply by socializing with my classmates. I've learned to articulate what I would like to say without being threatened by other opinions.


I know more than I did when I arrived, performed my best, and that is all I can ask of myself. I may not know everything that I have been introduced to, but I've realized that I'm not suppose to grasp upon everything immediately. These topics - Hebrew, Bible, Liturgy, etc. will constantly play a part in my life always and forwever.


A year ago I had mentioned that I would eat Clam Chowder without the clams. I laugh at myself when I think about how ridiculous that statement was. The reality is this: my spiritual growth is a constant part of who I am. My opinions about the world, my relationship to it, and Judaism as a whole keeps changing and evolving. I've been exposed to many different ways of looking at the world and Judaism, and have been able to take what I connect with most and adapt it to my own personal liking.


I've grown more this year than I did in four years of college. I've been through a long-distance relationship, overcome the greatest amount of stress that I ever have, made some adult decisions, and continue to learn to overcome my ego - my thinking self.

I'm almost 20% Rabbi. It's amazing - and I'm still loving it!


Sunday, April 27, 2008

My Heart is in the East

I need to be honest with you. When I decided to become part of the FSU Pesach Project, I had no idea that I would be impacted as much as I was during the past week in Belarus. Our months of preparation existed to alleviate any fears we had about leading Pesach Seders in a foreign community. Each of us knew that this was probably a once in a lifetime opportunity. All of us had family originating in Eastern Europe, and were curious to experience a least part of the culture of our ancestors.

When I left for Belarus a week ago, all of these general feelings toward the trip were at the forefront of my mind. I knew I was about to do a huge mitzvah to small, struggling communities who had one Rabbi to represent all of Belarus. I had no idea of what to expect – we knew very little about our schedules, but we knew we were about to be representatives of the Jewish people. For these communities, having someone even remotely like a Rabbi to come join their events is a huge deal. In addition, the idea of having someone who has been studying in Israel for the year intensifies their excitement.

We were welcomed by Rabbi Grisha Abramovich, Belarus’s only Reform Rabbi. As we took our hour long ride to Minsk, he told us a little more about our communities and reminded us what our role was going to be throughout the week. On Friday morning, I was introduced to my translator, a 20 year old female who is studying to become a linguist. Her enthusiasm to work with my classmate and I was contagious, and we quickly became both colleagues and friends. Because of her, everything went smoothly. While she was only two years younger than me, I was greatly impressed by her maturity. She put both myself and my classmate at ease while we were working, and I am convinced that it was because of her that my trip was a success.

Friday afternoon we arrived in Polosk to lead a Seder for the elderly and meet with the Netzer kids for Kabbalat Shabbat. This small community welcomed us with open arms and was curious to get to know us personally. When I told them my family was from Leychovitch, Lithuania – they quickly corrected me and told me that Leychovitch was located in Belarus. Immediately I received chills down my spine and it seemed clear that my connection with the East truly emerged within my heart.

Throughout the next week, whether when I led Seders in Polosk, or when I worked at the Kindergarten in Vitesbk, the cultural center of Belarus, I truly felt “home.” While there was a clear language barrier between these communities and myself, there were many instances where language did not prevent us from communicating with each other. The head of the Jewish Community in Polosk quickly became a grandmother to me, and a thirteen year old in Netzer was extremely motivated to teach me about his life in Belarus, while I taught him some new English words. At the kindergarten in Vitebsk I made the same jokes that I made with children in the United States. I am still letting this entire experience sink in, but it renewed my desire to become a Rabbi and enhanced my relationship to Judaism and Israel. Each community had more passion for Judaism than I had ever seen in my entire life. Those who had been to Israel were excited to share their stories. Those who had never been only could imagine what Israel could be like. All the controversy of Israel had a political and national entity was ignored while all the beauty of Israel, its history, and relationship with the Jewish people drove their love.
This trip definitely has been one of the major highlights of my first year in Rabbinical School, and was a fitting way to begin the end of such an important year. I came to Israel as an entirely different person. I had just graduated from college, I had never truly been away from home before, and I had no relationship to Israel. I had no idea that I would learn so much in such a relatively short time. Today, I prepare to leave Israel with a greater appreciation for the country, for Judaism, and myself.

The next few weeks will simply be “wrap-up” in all my classes. I have two papers and five exams to study for in order to be called a second year student. I’ll slowly transition back into the states, finding out where I will be teaching as well as being a student rabbi next year. I’ll be leading Shacharit (Morning Services) in two weeks. I’ll be searching for health insurance, car insurance, making a budget – all to become immersed back into the states. Am I worried? Not really. Things seem to fall into place. After all, living in the moment – making the most of my last few weeks in Israel – is more important to me that getting all A’s in my classes. This Year has truly changed me for the better – new friends, new knowledge, and a new perspective in life.



Saturday, April 12, 2008

"Something Like an Ego" - Sermon April 12, 2008

I had a dream the other night. I was walking to school in the pouring rain, becoming more and more drenched on what seemed to be a cold, gloomy day. The sky was pitch black, and thunder rumbled loudly. Looking for shelter, I came across a large, decapitated house that looked like it was about to be destroyed. It appeared as if something like a plague had inflicted it; mold and rot seemed to within its foundation. As I slowly began to approach the house, I suddenly was awoken by my alarm on my cell phone. I was in a deep sweat, my heart raced, my throat tightened, and my gut constricted.

They say that dreams can manifest themselves as unconscious messages that we wouldn’t recognize in our conscious lives. As I slowly began to start my day, I kept on trying to decode the hidden, mysterious message that my subconscious was trying to tell me. As I began to read this week’s parshah, Metzora, I began to wonder if my dream connected with the text. We learn that the same mysterious disease, tzara’at, found in humans, shares similar symptoms to that of a mold, blight, or rot that had been produced in the building stones of a house. We find in Leviticus 14:35 that when a homeowner reports these symptoms to the priest, he were to tell the priest, “Something like a plague has appeared upon my house.” It was clear that this week’s parsha resonated with my dream, yet the message remained unclear.

I asked myself, “Why would the homeowner report that only something like a plague had inflicted his house? Why wouldn’t the homeowner simply state that a plague – not something like it – had inflicted his house?”

Rashi notes that even if the homeowner was educated and certain that a plague indeed has infected his house, he may not report it to the priest with such certainty. Maimonides clarifies this concept by pointing out that the sudden emergence of this plague was not a natural phenomenon, but appeared as a warning sign to the Israelite people. The rabbis suggest that this warning sign is attributed to the fear of inviting evil into our lives by speaking of it. Modern scholars such as Rabbi Lawrence Kushner takes this a step forward and notes that when we give recognition to things that are “evil,” – such as anxiety or stress – it could potentially be harmful to ourselves and spread. In other words, Kushner suggests that when we are faced with these evils we must not give power to them.

Perhaps my dream, then, was a warning sign for something. I was still uncertain of what that warning sign was. As our parsha continues, we find that the priests are to quarantine the house for seven days, and if the mold remains, they will order either the walls to be removed or the entire structure destroyed. Sforno argues that the quarantine ordered by the priest is meant to prompt a person to reconsider one’s actions. In confronting one’s shortcomings, there is an opportunity for personal improvement. In this way, the affliction of tzara’at leads to a time of isolation and personal reflection. Nechama Lebowitz extends upon this idea and quotes the Talmud’s observation that “the house affected by tzara’at exists for the purposes of education.” In other words, the plague teaches us that we should take notices of the first sign of misconduct – whether it is to ourselves or to others – no matter small they are. Just like a disease begins with hardly noticeable symptoms and can be stopped if detected on time, so to we can prevent spiritual and emotional disease if immediate steps are taken.

Maybe my dream was not a warning sign at all, but a reminder for me to reflect and reexamine myself. Was this punishment because I had not updated my online blog in over a month, or because I studied for my Hebrew exam yet? We all often allow ourselves to be consumed by what sometimes are the things we love most. Our demanding schedules with that endless list of things to do on our desks, and that overwhelming feeling that there are not enough hours in the day to complete these tasks, often take control.

Contemporary teacher and writer on spirituality Eckhart Tolle suggests that our analytical mind, the false created self where our stress and anxiety is rooted, is called our Ego. Awareness of the difference between our selves and our Ego allow us to overcome the moments when our anxiety and stress takes hold. When we are under pressure we often forget to give ourselves a chance to take a breath. We sometimes allow our Ego, the thinking self, to amplify anxiety and stress until it becomes an unrelenting voice in our heads. That voice, however, has a weakness. It is dependant upon psychological time; our anxieties about the past and fears of the future. Despite what our Ego tells us, the present moment should not be fearful at all. The goal, then, is to live in the present moment, to live in what Tolle refers to as the Now. All of us have the ability to be in the present in our own lives, living moment by moment. We simply have to stop trying to live it, but simply be in it.

Jewish tradition recognizes that mindfulness, or living in the present moment, allows us to become our highest selves in the presence of God. Living in the present contains the seeds of all possibilities for our lives: freedom from suffering; true compassion for others; and a calm, spacious mind that welcomes change and personal growth. Nachman of Bratslav tells us:

Sit with the feeling of being alive; simply being present using body and breath as anchor. This means just to be present with what is, without DOING anything with any of it. Allowing it. Permitting it. So we sit, simply sit, in the present moment of being alive.

If we place more emphasis on the present moment, we can ask ourselves if the Ego’s need to control is fostering love or suffrage. Even when trying to stay in the present moment, the thinking mind can be overwhelming. Awareness of the Ego allows us to take charge of ourselves, even if it is only for a short period of time. While our Ego may continue with its incessant chatter, mindfulness of when it manifests itself allows us to have greater confidence in ourselves, recognize when we don’t like our Ego, or when we don’t like outcome that our Ego produces when it dominates us.

Rabbi Elie Munk notes that the last chapter of Metzora deals with a new series of cases of spiritual contamination. Contamination, according to Munk, is associated with sickness, but not when the sickness itself is caused by an excess of food, drink, fatigue, or impure fantasies. Once again, our rabbis comment that every sickness is a sign for us to pay attention. Finding the necessary balance between enjoying the things that we do and the stress that often comes with it is much like eating a great meal. We begin with such a great appetite for that meal and savor every bite. Once we have eaten that first course, we are so thirsty and gulp down our drinks quickly, only to find that we want more. And the end of the meal, we are stuffed and exhausted, trying to find room for desert. We fantasize about eating every morsel of that chocolate cake you know you shouldn’t eat, and we spend so much time attempting to justify why it is okay to eat it. Our craving to take upon a task only creates a greater desire to do more, and we sometimes forget when how much is too much. When we over work ourselves, we tend to become exhausted quickly. And despite all the warning signs that we need to take a break from everything, we try to justify why we can continue and are in fact harming ourselves because of these impure fantasies.

I had a dream the other night. I woke up in a deep sweat. My heart raced, my throat tightened, and my gut constricted. It appears that every time I reopen my eyes after sleeping, another week has quickly passed by. HUC student tradition has a saying that summarizes the Spring Semester in Israel, called the 3 P’s: “Purim. Pesach. Packing.” One down, two to go. It’s hard to believe that my Year in Israel has narrowed down to two short months. It’s going to definitely be strange next year going from a class of 52 to 9. I have so much to do before I begin my second year of rabbinical school – prepare for my student pulpit, buy a car, find an apartment, decide about insurance, make a new budget, the list seems to go on. Oops, there goes the Ego again! I know, I’ll take a step back and focus on the Now. I’m going to soak in the smell of Shabbat, and embrace every moment I have on my journey toward becoming a Rabbi. Yesterday is history, Tomorrow is a mystery, and Today is a gift; that’s why they call it… The Present.


It’s been awhile. I know. And I’ve clearly broke the promise I made to you and myself for this semester. Excuses? I have plenty, but I won’t exhaust my entry by giving you excuses – but I will tell you what I’ve been up to.

This semester has gone by extremely quick. We already are about to celebrate Passover. I’ll be flying to Belarus next week to lead seders in struggling communities. It’s bound to be a once in a lifetime experience to view “life” from a different lens.

Backtrack a little over a month ago…Our last big trip was to the Negev, where we spent nearly four days in the desert. Strange things happen in the desert. At night, I spent some time looking up to the clear sky – stars were everywhere, and all you could hear was the noise of silence. Our trip was less activity intensive, and I was able to develop a greater appreciation for Israel by going to the desert. In Jerusalem, one hears the noise of cars throughout the night, feels the tension of the Arab-Israeli conflict every day, and the holiness of such a beautiful country seems to fade away. Yet, the stress and anxiety of the week always diminishes come Friday. I will definitely miss the amazing “Shabbat smell.” The feeling of pre-Shabbat in Israel is irreplaceable. Everyone is a little nicer, a little happier, and in some sense, you feel freer. I am fortunate enough to have Fridays off throughout the rest of my schooling, and while it will be filled with errands, traveling to my student pulpit, and homework, I know that I can end the day with a Shabbat that I connect with most.

Shabbat – its one of those things I have struggled with throughout the year. I love the opportunity to explore different observances in Israel, but I feel that I am always boxed in to a particular “Shabbat genre” in Jerusalem. Everything is closed, everything is silent, and it is a day of prayer. Ironically, I am looking for a balance of both the silence of Shabbat with the freedom to do what I want to do. I’m looking forward to going to services, then out to lunch with friends, and spend my Saturdays doing things I can’t do during the rest of the week. Whether it be at my synagogue where I will be teaching, or going to the movies, I feel that I will be able to express my Judaism more when I return back home.

Purim was a blast – it definitely is the Halloween of Israel, but extended throughout all of the country: Purim music, Purim food and sweets, Purim parties, and EVERYONE is in a costume. I had the pleasure of being part of the committee that put together the Purim service and shpiel for HUC. Our service was in the theme of Motown, and I have come to the conclusion that I make one ugly woman – PJ “Tina Turner” Schwartz made one appearance and one appearance only. Nevertheless, between my debut as a female and my impressions of teachers, I definitely got some laughs from my classmates.

On the home front, I’ve been slowly preparing for next school year. I have begun to buy books to expand my never ending library, and while some of these books are only “suggestions” and others are “required,” I always get excited when I buy books. Yes, they are expensive. Yes, I’m going to eventually have thousands of books that I will have read. I’m a teacher – I need my sources to teach. I need my sources to learn. They are my teachers that help me explore my own beliefs.

In the next few weeks, I will find out where I will have a student pulpit next year as well as what grade of Religious School I am teaching. I’m really looking forward to this opportunity – it will be my reminder of why I am becoming a rabbi. It will be part of my detachment from the HUC bubble, which will be smaller next year (and less influential upon my life). I am hoping that I will teach at the Jewish high school, and I am really hoping I get to teach courses on Evil and Suffering in Judaism, Comparative Religious Ethics, Jewish Prayer, Views of God, or Biblical Criticism (all of my personal interests – and the high school is Elective course driven to!).

I’m basically at the homestretch, arriving back in the states on May 23. I’ll be in Greenville for two weeks, and then I will be going to Atlanta for a three week mentorship at The Temple, Atlanta’s largest Reform Jewish Synagogue. I have to give Michelle some credit for this opportunity, as she suggested I contact this congregation (this is where she grew up Jewishly). I’ll be shadowing the rabbis, working on curriculum, possibly participating in Shabbat services, and having some experience in pastoral care. I’m really excited about this – it is a great preparation for my pulpit come Fall!

During July, Michelle and I will drive up to Cincinnati to look for apartments, visit a friend in Knoxville, and then I will return to Greenville for 2 weeks before I move up to Ohio for good.

I began this blog entry about 3 days ago, and am finally posting it. You'll be pleased to find out that shortly after I post this one, I will be posting a sermon I did today. It went WONDERFULLY. I recieved many compliments - someone even asked for my email address so they could provide me with information to send my sermon to individuals that couldn't come! It was a great feeling of accomplishment, and it's a message that is important for me to learn and share.

Hope all is well stateside,


Friday, March 7, 2008

With All Your Heart, Soul, and Might

Only a 30 minute walk away from me. I've been near the neighborhood. Jewish Seminary - it could have been me.

These were the thoughts that went through my head last night as Yeshiva students were killed last night in a terrorist shooting.

Our thoughts turn to those who are in need of healing... At this time we remember those who have past away in the recent week...

These are the words of prayer we state every week.

Every week I stand reciting the Mourner's Kaddish (the prayer for mourners), standing for those who do not have the opportunity to mourn. This Shabbat, and the coming weeks, my thoughts turn to those who lost their children last night. I will stand reciting the Mourner's Kaddish, and call out to God.

I am okay. I am okay. I am okay.

These are the words I keep telling myself.

Thank you all for your concern. I am safe, healthy, and secure. I will avoid large public crowds, not take the buses, and won't be buying produce at the Shuk (open air market) anytime soon.

Neverthless, I am okay.